Phineas Redux, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 40

The Prime Minister is hard pressed

It can never be a very easy thing to form a Ministry. The one chosen chief is readily selected. Circumstances, indeed, have probably left no choice in the matter. Every man in the country who has at all turned his thoughts that way knows very well who will be the next Prime Minister when it comes to pass that a change is imminent. In these days the occupant of the throne can have no difficulty. Mr Gresham recommends Her Majesty to send for Mr Daubeny, or Mr Daubeny for Mr Gresham — as some ten or a dozen years since Mr Mildmay told her to send for Lord de Terrier, or Lord de Terrier for Mr Mildmay. The Prime Minister is elected by the nation, but the nation, except in rare cases, cannot go below that in arranging details, and the man for whom the Queen sends is burdened with the necessity of selecting his colleagues. It may be — probably must always be the case — that this, that, and the other colleagues are clearly indicated to his mind, but then each of these colleagues may want his own inferior coadjutors, and so the difficulty begins, increases, and at length culminates. On the present occasion it was known at the end of a week that Mr Gresham had not filled all his offices, and that there were difficulties. It was announced that the Duke of St Bungay could not quite agree on certain points with Mr Gresham, and that the Duke of Omnium would do nothing without the other Duke. The Duke of St Bungay was very powerful, as there were three or four of the old adherents of Mr Mildmay who would join no Government unless he was with them. Sir Harry Coldfoot and Lord Plinlimmon would not accept office without the Duke. The Duke was essential, and now, though the Duke’s character was essentially that of a practical man who never raised unnecessary trouble, men said that the Duke was at the bottom of it all. The Duke did not approve of Mr Bonteen. Mr Gresham, so it was said, insisted on Mr Bonteen — appealing to the other Duke. But that other Duke, our own special Duke, Planty Pall that was, instead of standing up for Mr Bonteen, was cold and unsympathetic. He could not join the Ministry without his friend, the Duke of St Bungay, and as to Mr Bonteen, he thought that perhaps a better selection might be made.

Such were the club rumours which took place as to the difficulties of the day, and, as is generally the case, they were not far from the truth. Neither of the dukes had absolutely put a veto on poor Mr Bonteen’s elevation, but they had expressed themselves dissatisfied with the appointment, and the younger Duke had found himself called upon to explain that although he had been thrown much into communication with Mr Bonteen he had never himself suggested that that gentleman should follow him at the Exchequer. This was one of the many difficulties which beset the Prime Minister elect in the performance of his arduous duty.

Lady Glencora, as people would still persist in calling her, was at the bottom of it all. She had sworn an oath inimical to Mr Bonteen, and did not leave a stone unturned in her endeavours to accomplish it. If Phineas Finn might find acceptance, then Mr Bonteen might be allowed to enter Elysium. A second Juno, she would allow the Romulus she hated to sit in the seats of the blessed, to be fed with nectar, and to have his name printed in the lists of unruffled Cabinet meetings — but only on conditions. Phineas Finn must be allowed a seat also, and a little nectar — though it were at the second table of the gods. For this she struggled, speaking her mind boldly to this and that member of her husband’s party, but she struggled in vain. She could obtain no assurance on behalf of Phineas Finn. The Duke of St Bungay would do nothing for her. Barrington Erle had declared himself powerless. Her husband had condescended to speak to Mr Bonteen himself, and Mr Bonteen’s insolent answer had been reported to her. Then she went sedulously to work, and before a couple of days were over she did make her husband believe that Mr Bonteen was not fit to be Chancellor of the Exchequer. This took place before Mr Daubeny’s statement, while the Duke and Duchess of St Bungay were still at Matching — while Mr Bonteen, unconscious of what was being done, was still in the House. Before the two days were over, the Duke of St Bungay had a very low opinion of Mr Bonteen, but was quite ignorant of any connection between that low opinion and the fortunes of Phineas Finn.

“Plantagenet, of all your men that are coming up, your Mr Bonteen is the worst. I often think that you are going down hill, both in character and intellect, but if you go as low as that I shall prefer to cross the water, and live in America.” This she said in the presence of the two dukes.

“What has Mr Bonteen done?” asked the elder, laughing.

“He was boasting this morning openly of whom he intended to bring with him into the Cabinet.” Truth demands that the chronicler should say that this was a positive fib. Mr Bonteen, no doubt, had talked largely and with indiscretion, but had made no such boast as that of which the Duchess accused him. “Mr Gresham will get astray if he doesn’t allow someone to tell him the truth.”

She did not press the matter any further then, but what she had said was not thrown away. “Your wife is almost right about that man,” the elder Duke said to the younger.

“It’s Mr Gresham’s doing — not mine,” said the younger.

“She is right about Gresham, too,” said the elder. “With all his immense intellect and capacity for business no man wants more looking after.”

That evening Mr Bonteen was singled out by the Duchess for her special attention, and in the presence of all who were there assembled he made himself an ass. He could not save himself from talking about himself when he was encouraged. On this occasion he offended all those feelings of official discretion and personal reticence which had been endeared to the old duke by the lessons which he had learned from former statesmen and by the experience of his own life. To be quiet, unassuming, almost affectedly modest in any mention of himself, low-voiced, reflecting always more than he resolved, and resolving always more than he said, had been his aim. Conscious of his high rank, and thinking, no doubt, much of the advantages in public life which his birth and position had given him, still he would never have ventured to speak of his own services as necessary to any Government. That he had really been indispensable to many he must have known, but not to his closest friend would he have said so in plain language. To such a man the arrogance of Mr Bonteen was intolerable.

There is probably more of the flavour of political aristocracy to be found still remaining among our liberal leading statesmen than among their opponents. A Conservative Cabinet is, doubtless, never deficient in dukes and lords, and the sons of such; but conservative dukes and lords are recruited here and there, and as recruits, are new to the business, whereas among the old Whigs a halo of statecraft has, for ages past, so strongly pervaded and enveloped certain great families, that the power in the world of politics thus produced still remains, and is even yet efficacious in creating a feeling of exclusiveness. They say that “misfortune makes men acquainted with strange bedfellows’. The old hereditary Whig Cabinet ministers must, no doubt, by this time have learned to feel themselves at home with strange neighbours at their elbows. But still with them something of the feeling of high blood, of rank, and of living in a park with deer about it, remains. They still entertain a pride in their Cabinets, and have, at any rate, not as yet submitted themselves to a conjuror. The Charles James Fox element of liberality still holds its own, and the fragrance of Cavendish is essential. With no man was this feeling stronger than with the Duke of St Bungay, though he well knew how to keep it in abeyance — even to the extent of self-sacrifice. Bonteens must creep into the holy places. The faces which he loved to see — born chiefly of other faces he had loved when young — could not cluster around the sacred table without others which were much less welcome to him. He was wise enough to know that exclusiveness did not suit the nation, though human enough to feel that it must have been pleasant to himself. There must be Bonteens — but when any Bonteen came up, who loomed before his eyes as specially disagreeable, it seemed to him to be a duty to close the door against such a one, if it could be closed without violence. A constant, gentle pressure against the door would tend to keep down the number of the Bonteens.

“I am not sure that you are not going a little too quick in regard to Mr Bonteen,” said the elder duke to Mr Gresham before he had finally assented to a proposition originated by himself — that he should sit in the Cabinet without a portfolio.

“Palliser wishes it,” said Mr Gresham, shortly.

“He and I think that there has been some mistake about that. You suggested the appointment to him, and he felt unwilling to raise an objection without giving the matter very mature consideration. You can understand that.”

“Upon my word I thought that the selection would be peculiarly agreeable to him.” Then the duke made a suggestion. “Could not some special office at the Treasury be constructed for Mr Bonteen’s acceptance, having special reference to the question of decimal coinage?”

“But how about the salary?” asked Mr Gresham. “I couldn’t propose a new office with a salary above oe2,000.”

“Couldn’t we make it permanent,” suggested the duke — “with permission to hold a seat if he can get one?”

“I fear not,” said Mr Gresham.

“He got into a very unpleasant scrape when he was Financial Secretary,” said the Duke.

But whither would’st thou, Muse? Unmeet For jocund lyre are themes like these . Shalt thou the talk of Gods repeat, Debasing by thy strains effete Such lofty mysteries?

The absolute words of a conversation so lofty shall no longer be attempted, but it may be said that Mr Gresham was too wise to treat as of no account the objections of such a one as the Duke of St Bungay. He saw Mr Bonteen, and he saw the other Duke, and difficulties arose. Mr Bonteen made himself very disagreeable indeed. As Mr Bonteen had never absolutely been as yet more than a demigod, our Muse, light as she is, may venture to report that he told Mr Ratler that “he’d be d — if he’d stand it. If he were to be thrown over now, he’d make such a row, and would take such care that the fat should be in the fire, that his enemies, whoever they were, should wish that they had kept their fingers off him. He knew who was doing it.” If he did not know, his guess was right. In his heart he accused the young duchess, though he mentioned her name to no one. And it was the young duchess. Then there was made an insidious proposition to Mr Gresham — which reached him at last through Barrington Erle — that matters would go quieter if Phineas Finn were placed in his old office at the Colonies instead of Lord Fawn, whose name had been suggested, and for whom — as Barrington Erle declared — no one cared a brass farthing. Mr Gresham, when he heard this, thought that he began to smell a rat, and was determined to be on his guard. Why should the appointment of Mr Phineas Finn make things go easier in regard to Mr Bonteen? There must be some woman’s fingers in the pie. Now Mr Gresham was firmly resolved that no woman’s fingers should have anything to do with his pie.

How the thing went from bad to worse, it would be bootless here to tell. Neither of the two dukes absolutely refused to join the Ministry; but they were persistent in their objection to Mr Bonteen, and were joined in it by Lord Plinlimmon and Sir Harry Coldfoot. It was in vain that Mr Gresham urged that he had no other man ready and fit to be Chancellor of the Exchequer. That excuse could not be accepted. There was Legge Wilson, who twelve years since had been at the Treasury, and would do very well. Now Mr Gresham had always personally hated Legge Wilson — and had, therefore, offered him the Board of Trade. Legge Wilson had disgusted him by accepting it, and the name had already been published in connection with the office. But in the lists which had appeared towards the end of the week, no name was connected with the office of Chancellor of the Exchequer, and no office was connected with the name of Mr Bonteen. The editor of the People’s Banner, however, expressed the gratification of that journal that even Mr Gresham had not dared to propose Mr Phineas Finn for any place under the Crown.

At last Mr Bonteen was absolutely told that he could not be Chancellor of the Exchequer. If he would consent to give his very valuable services to the country with the view of carrying through Parliament the great measure of decimal coinage he should be President of the Board of Trade — but without a seat in the Cabinet. He would thus become the Right Honourable Bonteen, which, no doubt, would be a great thing for him — and, not busy in the Cabinet, must be able to devote his time exclusively to the great measure above-named. What was to become of “Trade” generally, was not specially explained; but, as we all know, there would be a Vice-President to attend to details.

The proposition very nearly broke the man’s heart. With a voice stopped by agitation, with anger flashing from his eyes, almost in a convulsion of mixed feelings, he reminded his chief of what had been said about his appointment in the House. Mr Gresham had already absolutely defended it. After that did Mr Gresham mean to withdraw a promise that had so formally been made? But Mr Gresham was not to be caught in that way. He had made no promise — had not even stated to the House that such appointment was to be made. A very improper question had been asked as to a rumour — in answering which he had been forced to justify himself by explaining that discussions respecting the office had been necessary. “Mr Bonteen,” said Mr Gresham, “no one knows better than you the difficulties of a Minister. If you can act with us I shall be very grateful to you. If you cannot, I shall regret the loss of your services.” Mr Bonteen took twenty-four hours to consider, and was then appointed President of the Board of Trade without a seat in the Cabinet. Mr Legge Wilson became Chancellor of the Exchequer. When the lists were completed, no office whatever was assigned to Phineas Finn. “I haven’t done with Mr Bonteen yet,” said the young duchess to her friend Madame Goesler.

The secrets of the world are very marvellous, but they are not themselves half so wonderful as the way in which they become known to the world. There could be no doubt that Mr Bonteen’s high ambition had foundered, and that he had been degraded through the secret enmity of the Duchess of Omnium. It was equally certain that his secret enmity to Phineas Finn had brought this punishment on his head. But before the Ministry had been a week in office almost everybody knew that it was so. The rumours were full of falsehood, but yet they contained the truth. The duchess had done it. The duchess was the bosom friend of Lady Laura Kennedy, who was in love with Phineas Finn. She had gone on her knees to Mr Gresham to get a place for her friend’s favourite, and Mr Gresham had refused. Consequently, at her bidding, half a dozen embryo Ministers — her husband among the number — had refused to be amenable to Mr Gresham. Mr Gresham had at last consented to sacrifice Mr Bonteen, who had originally instigated him to reject the claims of Phineas Finn. That the degradation of the one man had been caused by the exclusion of the other all the world knew.

“It shuts the door to me for ever and ever,” said Phineas to Madame Goesler.

“I don’t see that.”

“Of course it does. Such an affair places a mark against a man’s name which will never be forgotten.”

“Is your heart set upon holding some trifling appointment under a Minister?”

“To tell you the truth, it is — or rather it was. The prospect of office to me was more than perhaps to any other expectant. Even this man, Bonteen, has some fortune of his own, and can live if he be excluded. I have given up everything for the chance of something in this line.”

“Other lines are open.”

“Not to me, Madame Goesler. I do not mean to defend myself. I have been very foolish, very sanguine, and am now very unhappy.”

“What shall I say to you?”

“The truth.”

“In truth, then, I do not sympathise with you. The thing lost is too small, too mean to justify unhappiness.”

“But, Madame Goesler, you are a rich woman.”

“Well?”

“If you were to lose it all, would you not be unhappy? It has been my ambition to live here in London as one of a special set which dominates all other sets in our English world. To do so a man should have means of his own. I have none; and yet I have tried it — thinking that I could earn my bread at it as men do at other professions. I acknowledge that I should not have thought so. No man should attempt what I have attempted without means, at any rate to live on if he fail; but I am not the less unhappy because I have been silly.”

“What will you do?”

“Ah — what? Another friend asked me that the other day, and I told her that I should vanish.”

“Who was that friend?”

“Lady Laura.”

“She is in London again now?”

“Yes; she and her father are in Portman Square.”

“She has been an injurious friend to you.”

“No, by heaven,” exclaimed Phineas. “But for her I should never have been here at all, never have had a seat in Parliament, never have been in office, never have known you.”

“And might have been the better without any of these things.”

“No man ever had a better friend than Lady Laura has been to me. Malice, wicked and false as the devil, has lately joined our names together to the incredible injury of both of us; but it has not been her fault.”

“You are energetic in defending her.”

“And so would she be in defending me. Circumstances threw us together and made us friends. Her father and her brother were my friends. I happened to be of service to her husband. We belonged to the same party. And therefore — because she has been unfortunate in her marriage — people tell lies of her.”

“It is a pity he should — not die, and leave her,” said Madame Goesler slowly.

“Why so?”

“Because then you might justify yourself in defending her by making her your wife.” She paused, but he made no answer to this. “You are in love with her,” she said.

“It is untrue.”

“Mr Finn!”

“Well, what would you have? I am not in love with her. To me she is no more than my sister. Were she as free as air I should not ask her to be my wife. Can a man and woman feel no friendship without being in love with each other?”

“I hope they may,” said Madame Goesler. Had he been lynx-eyed he might have seen that she blushed; but it required quick eyes to discover a blush on Madame Goesler’s face. “You and I are friends.”

“Indeed we are,” he said, grasping her hand as he took his leave.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:43